Children adjusting to separation or divorce
Separation or divorce usually mean big changes for family life. Your child might feel upset and sad when these changes happen. It’s OK for your child to feel this way. It’ll help them to know that this is a tough time for everyone.
Talking with your child is one of the best ways to help them adjust to the changes in your family. There are also some practical things you can do to help, including sticking with familiar routines, involving children in decision-making and getting support.
Talking with children about separation or divorce
Here are some tips for talking with your child about the changes that separation or divorce bring.
Keep it simple
Your child doesn’t need to know all the details. But they do have a right to know what’s happening, where they’ll live and who’ll take care of them. And they need to know that things will be OK again.
It’s best if you can explain in clear, simple and honest language your child can understand. For example, ‘We both love you, and we’re going to take care of you. We’ve decided that it works best for our family if Dad and I live apart’.
Take your time with hard questions
If your child asks you a hard question like ‘Where am I going to live now?’, you could ask, ‘What have you heard?’ This helps you find out what your child already knows or doesn’t understand.
Sometimes you won’t know how to answer a hard question, so give yourself time to think and tell your child that you’ll get back to them. You could say, ‘I don’t know right now. Your Dad and I are still working that out. But I do know that you’ll get to spend time with each of us’.
If your child asks you hard questions about their other parent, encourage your child to talk to their other parent directly. If your relationship with your child’s other parent is OK, you could let them know that your child has asked some questions.
Tune in to your child’s concerns
There might be specific concerns behind your child’s questions. For example, if your child asks when Mum is going to move back, they might be worrying about when they’ll next see Mum.
Ask your child what they’re worried about, and reassure them with simple words that show you understand. For example, ‘It sounds like you’re worried about when you’ll see Mum. You’re still going to see Mum every week. I understand that’s very important for you’.
Whatever question your child asks, it’s good to reassure your child that you and their other parent love them.
Keep the conversation going
Your child might keep thinking about an issue, so be prepared to answer questions more than once.
If you make a regular time to talk, this can give your child a chance to discuss their concerns. For example, it could be when your child gets home from school, while you’re cooking or eating dinner together, before reading time, or while you‘re driving together in the car. You can also use this regular time to let your child know about new developments.
Talk about feelings
Your child will probably see you feeling sad, angry or upset. That’s OK, and it can even be healthy. If your child sees you expressing feelings in a calm and healthy way, they’ll know that it’s OK for them to do this too. And it’s always important to let your child know that you love them, that your feelings are not their fault or responsibility, and that things will get better.
When your child expresses feelings, try listening actively. This gives you both the chance to explore and understand your child’s feelings better. You can say things like, ‘I can see you’re upset’, ‘I understand this makes you feel sad’ or ‘I’d feel upset if that happened to me too’.
It might be difficult to hear about your child’s hurt, confusion, sadness or anger, especially if you’re dealing with similar feelings yourself. But your child needs to talk, and you’ll better understand your child’s needs if you really listen.
Suggest someone else to talk to
Sometimes it’s easier for children to share feelings and thoughts with someone other than their parents. You could encourage your child to talk to another trusted adult – a friend, a teacher, an aunt, uncle, cousin or grandparent. If friends and family are likely to be talking with your child, it’s a good idea to ask them not to make negative comments about your child’s other parent.
Familiar routines for children after separation or divorce
Routines help children feel secure, safe and in control, so keeping up routines can help your child cope with changes like separation and divorce.
Try to identify small routines that really matter to your child, like a regular playdate with a friend or a special book before bed. Let your child know that these things won’t change. If possible, try not to change big things like your child’s school.
It’s also good to maintain rituals. The way you wake your child in the morning or what you say to them at bedtime are reassuring rituals that you can easily keep up.
You can always create new routines and adapt rituals too. This might need to happen if there are changes to child care arrangements or your income. If your child is old enough, you could try working out some new routines together.
Decision-making with children after separation or divorce
If you can involve your child in small day-to-day decisions like how to arrange their room or what to have for dinner, it’ll help your child feel like they have some control at a time when many things are changing.
With older children, it’s important to listen carefully and let them know that their opinions matter. For example, you and your child’s other parent might be able to use some of your child’s ideas to plan your co-parenting arrangements.
But it’s very important not to burden children of any age with big decisions, especially ones that make them choose or feel stuck between you.
Fun time with children after separation or divorce
Take time out to have some fun, even if it’s just a quick hug and giggle or putting on some music and dancing together. It’s also good to do a few things on the spur of the moment – for example, having dinner as a picnic in the park.
When children are struggling after separation or divorce: signs and support
Your child might not be able to tell you with words that they’re struggling. But changes in their usual behaviour, mood or personality can be signs that they aren’t OK. These changes might include:
- wetting the bed
- having sleep problems
- getting more angry or teary than usual.
If you think your child needs support, there are a few people who can help.
You can let your child’s teachers at child care, preschool or school know what’s going on. They can watch out for changes in your child’s behaviour and might also be able to suggest other support, including school counsellors.
If you’re worried about your preschooler’s or school-age child’s mental health or your pre-teen or teenage child’s mental health, talk to your GP as soon as possible. They can help you find other professionals who can help, like local psychologists.
If you need support because of family violence, speak to your GP, a health professional, or a trusted family member or friend. You can also call the National Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978. If you or your children are in immediate danger because of family violence, call the police on 000.